My contemporaries and I found Mr. Rogers hokey. Whether it was the sweater or our age or a distaste for puppetry, we didn’t watch. In college, we bandied about the word “special” with great sarcasm, the invoking of “specialness” ensuring snickers. Yet when the anniversary of Mr. Rogers’ testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on Communications
occurred on May 1 and its video made the rounds, his words regarding just that – specialness – had a profound effect upon me that has lasted all month.
Here was a guy who was just, essentially, good. Not only inherently good, he did good. You can be good without doing any particular good, but he was and did — without flash or cloying sentimentality or maudlin pity for those less fortunate. He really felt, I think, that all men are created equal. He talked and walked it without raising his voice.
He recounted, in the 1969 hearing, how when the money ran out, viewers of (then young) PBS from all over said, “We’ve got to have more of this neighborhood expression of care.” He addressed the no-nonsense Senator John Pastore from Rhode Island (formerly the Governor of Rhode Island and the first Italian American elected governor or Senator), urging that non-violent children’s programming was critically important. That “it’s much more dramatic that two men could be working out their feelings of anger … much more dramatic than showing something of gunfire.”
Fred Rogers humbly explained to the gruff toughie senator (whose mother had supported 5 children as a seamstress when his father died and who was unfamiliar with Mr. Rogers Neighborhood): “This is what I give. I give an expression of care every day to each child, to help him realize that he is unique. I end the program by saying, ‘You’ve made this day a special day, by just your being you. There’s no person in the whole world like you, and I like you, just the way you are.’” As I watched this gentle man telling a senator over 40 years ago something so simple, arguing for funding to continue spreading his message, I realized what I’d been missing all along in my youthful superiority complex.
In a world consumed by the accumulation of wealth and fine objects, there is a lot to be said just for just being a decent guy. I don’t know if they still give it out, but years ago my friend’s young son in Randolph received an award at school for being a good person. I bawled at the news, overcome that this quality was considered worth honoring, and proud of the boy. I don’t think Mr. Rogers likely made a lot of money. If he did, he didn’t spend it on his clothes; he probably gave a lot of it away. He probably didn’t live in a fancy house or drive a fancy car; most Presbyterian ministers don’t.
Who is more influential, ultimately: a gorgeous actor or accomplished businessperson or a hot heiress or a leathers-rocking NASCAR stud…or an unassuming man who let millions of children know – back when people didn’t say such things to children very often – that it’s okay to feel lonely or angry or scared; it’s what you do with it that matters? And more importantly, that they mattered. Who’s contributing more to planet earth? I guess it depends on who’s judging. My money’s on Rogers.
For me, it’s become, increasingly, quite enough for people to be and do good. We don’t need a sports car or a big title or awards of any kind. I’m happy competing with my friend to see who can immerse self in the river the latest in October. I’m not disparaging those who achieve great things. I’ve known persons who’ve won an Oscar and the French Open and I’ve held Hannah Kearney’s gold medal in my hand; I’m awed by all three. But I’m equally in awe of helpers. Inner city teachers. Nurses. People with disabled children who fight for them and do their best to give them lives with meaning. And people who are good at anything at all. Making a grilled cheese sandwich. Cultivating a flower garden. Fishing. And nutters who amass Certificates … for, like, Evelyn Wood’s Speed Reading. Rock on.
Neighbor, please take today to think about your value. The way you make strangers snort at the grocery store. The trash you collected on Green Up Day. The pet you chose from a shelter. The estranged friend you wrote even when it was awkward because so much time had gone by, but you knew he was in a hard situation. I’m not sure what I’ve done with my life. I do endeavor, in general, to make people feel good. And to remind them, while their difficulty, or their friend’s, may have little or no upside, how Mr. Rogers once said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
I think you’re special. There’s no person in the whole world like you and I like you, just the way you are. Good day.